Crimea is Crucial for Understanding the History of Ukraine – Serhii Plokhy
27 October, 2018

Ukraine has a very deep cultural history. Although the country never appeared on the map for longer than a few months until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, its roots go back thousands of years, to when historian Herodotus wrote about Crimea and the Olbia region that is now part of southern Ukraine.

“When you look at the territory of Ukraine – the internationally recognized territory of Ukraine – Crimea has more history than any other part of Ukraine,” says author and professor at the Harvard University Serhii Plokhy.

Plokhy – who has written numerous books including the London-published Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy and The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine – adds that without Crimean history, the history of Ukraine “doesn't have a beginning, it's just cut off.”

“Crimea is also important for the world history as a whole. That's also what makes Ukrainian history really international and integrated into the history of Mediterranean, into the history of Europe, into the history of world,” he says.

Hromadske sat down with Plokhy to discuss some of his most recent books and the imprint various historical events have left on Ukraine.

What is your main finding and really the role of the [Chernobyl disaster in 1986]? What should we really know that many years after?

One thing was that Chernobyl was a very important part in the history of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The mobilization of the Ukrainian society, the creation of Rukh – the movement for the independence of Ukraine – started with the mobilization around ecological issues, and in particular Chernobyl. Leaders of Rukh like Ivan Drach were saying that, well, without Chernobyl and mobilization around Chernobyl, there would be no Rukh. So, in that sense what happened in Ukraine had a major impact on the fate of the Soviet Union, and Chernobyl, and the end of the Soviet Union are really interconnected. I suspected that it was the case, I didn't know that was true, that that was for fact. And my research convinced me that indeed that was a case. Another very important theme in that book is the relationship between the nation and society and nuclear energy as a whole. And Ukraine went through a number of stages formulating its relationship to nuclear energy.

Photo credit: Oleksiy Nikulin/HROMADSKE

First, it started with a love story. The nation was joining the club of nuclear nations, the leaders of the government, the Ukrainian writers and poets loved it and then Chernobyl happened, the explosion of the fourth reactor. The views and relationship between these people who represented nation and nuclear power changed dramatically. Nuclear power was viewed as something that was stealing and destroying the nation. By 1990s there was another turn – in the conditions, where economy was in free fall the same people, who advocated for the nuclear-free status for Ukraine, who advocated for closer of nuclear plants now became actually supporters of the idea that those nuclear plants should work as long as possible, including Chernobyl plant. So that again raises the big question about how countries and states relate to the nuclear energy and we know, for example, that Germany decided to go nuclear-free. At the same time, in France, 75% of electrical energy comes from nuclear. Ukraine is somewhere in-between or maybe closer to Franceю In the land of Chernobyl, 50% of our electrical energy comes from the nuclear.

So we are involved, invested and dependant on nuclear energy more than most of the countries in the world. So that is something, which stays with us and unfortunately one of conclusions of the book is that the accidents like Chernobyl can happen again. Because Chernobyl was also the product where particular type of the political and economic system, it was the authoritarian regime in the Soviet Union that had full control of the information. The accidents smaller than Chernobyl but similar to it, which happened before – one of them took place in 1975 another in 1957 – were really kept secret. There was no opportunity to change certain things, to adjust. And when we look today where the most nuclear power plants are being built – it's not the first world, even the former Soviet Union where the society and the industry have experience had with nuclear energy. It’s Middle East. It’s volatile politically, it’s volatile in terms of...there are seismic zones there. It's the new frontier of nuclear and it’s the region dominated mostly by the authoritarian regime. The book doesn't end on a very optimistic note.

When reading your book, you really feel a lot of empathy to the people who were there. So they are considered to be villains, a lot of people in the nuclear industry and in the leadership of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic and USSR. But among them, there are some who you feel that they were heroic. So what else would you like to say and let us know with that? And that's not exactly how you now relate to that time. Despite of the general myth of the heroes, who saved [people], but we speak about the people who were at the place.

This book is a work of history. It's contemporary history, it goes almost all the way up until today. This year they’re supposed to finish the construction of the new sarcophagus, of the new shelter over the Chernobyl reactor, but it's a work of history. One of the tasks of the historian is to just go beyond the layers of mythology and that's what I was trying to do looking at the particular context with the circumstances in which those people worked. And despite the fact that really Chernobyl is kind of an explosion that not only destroyed the communist system, but was a result of that communist system. When you look at the people who represented that system, it's very difficult to divide them into heroes and villains because very often they were both. And I started the book with the story of the director of the nuclear power plant Mr. Brukhanov who doesn't fit either of this categories and that's why he didn't end up in what Svitlana Aleksievych was writing about Chernobyl or even Yuriy Scherbak before that. He is at the same time a person responsible for what happened as the director, but he also ended up to be a scapegoat who was put in prison for the really false...and problems that were not of his own creation. And one of those problems was the problem with the design of the reactor, which was unsafe from the very beginning. So in that sense again I wanted to go as deep as possible into the time, into the circumstances of that time and understand really the sources of heroism of those people, but also the sources of the problems, the sources of the tragedy – he English edition of the book has tragedy in the title, the American one doesn't have – so the sources of that tragedy.

Photo credit: Oleksiy Nikulin/HROMADSKE

I want to ask about one of your recent books, on the assassination of Stepan Bandera – the Ukrainian leader of nationalism – which had been done on the German soil by the Soviet Secret Service. And when you read it – we’re doing that in the times of Skrypal, in the times of what’s happening now – what else is there to know? Because the Soviet KGB is a very closed system but your book is eye-opening. What can we find out and learn from those archives on what's happening today?

First of all, this book is about the height of the Cold War. So the assassination, one of the assassinations... The character of this book kills two leaders of the Ukrainian emigration Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera. The first assassination took place in 1957, another in 1959, and there was a trial of the assassin in 1962 around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. So it's the height of the Cold War and it's also the height of the war between the intelligence services: Soviet, American, German, West German in particular. We are now in the middle of what some people call new cold war or return of the cold war. And in that sense, when you look at the methods, which were used they seem to be very familiar to what is happening today. We are again in the age – as you pointed out – in the age of assassinations that are very directly linked, again, to Moscow and to Kremlin, like it was the case back in 1962. We are also in the age of the so-called active measures that really become a hallmark of the KGB activities in late 1950s and early 1960s and which now receive the continuation in this new world of internet and the ability to cross the borders between the states, between the worlds with the help of the internet. So there are differences in technologies certainly and there are differences in some methods. But there are also parallels. And again when I was working on that book, I couldn't imagine that it would be so timely in that particular sense.

And finally one of the bestsellers – I have it in Ukrainian – it's The Gates of Europe. It's comprehensive history of modern Ukraine. it’s not very well-known in the West. How would you describe the Ukrainian political nation to the western audience? Is it already created? Is it this young nation? Because the history goes for almost two thousand years but Ukraine is considered to be a very new nation. So how do you combine that? Also, there are still a lot of debates about the history of Crimea, what the western audience doesn't know through this very big and established Russian narrative of the Crimean history.

Well, the term “nation” itself is used differently, let's say in Britain and Europe on the one hand and U.S. on the other. And in the U.S., nation means country and from that point of view, Ukraine is a very new nation as an independent country. It really first appeared on the map for a longer period than a few months in 1991. Before that, it appeared in 1918, in 1919 but that was for a short period of time. So it's a new nation from that point of view, as an independent state. But in terms of its roots, in particular cultural roots – I talk and write a lot about culture – they are really very deep. They are deep in terms of formation of modern Ukrainian national project, which starts like most of the countries of Europe (and in particular East-Central Europe) in the 19th century. And it was one of my tasks first of all to introduce to the western reader and American reader in particular this new nation, but also to show its historical roots and its origins.

Photo credit: Oleksiy Nikulin/HROMADSKE

And Crimea is part of that story. When you look at the territory of Ukraine – the internationally recognized territory of Ukraine – Crimea has more history than any other part of Ukraine. It starts with Herodotus who writes about Crimea and also writes about Olbia so it's part of today’s southern Ukraine in the region of Odesa. So these are some areas of Ukraine that we know the most historically. In that sense, if you don't include Crimea and southern Ukraine into the narrative of the history, it doesn't have the beginning, it's just cut off. You start later and then you really don't understand a lot about Ukrainian history, because Ukrainian history very much is about the history of the country, of people who are in the process of moving toward the Azov and the Black Sea.

And it comes from the history of the cossacks and you see the Vikings who came to Kyiv and created this state, why they did that, they created on the road to Constantinople, on the road to the Black Sea.

So if you don't have Black Sea, if you don't have Crimea, if you don't have Southern Ukraine... Wherever you start Ukrainian history, first of all, you start it in the wrong place but also it doesn't make sense. The cossacks and the seagoing expeditions and the war against the Crimean Khanate have no sense and the origins can't be explained without looking at Crimea. So Crimea is really very important for Ukrainian history but Crimea is also important for the world history as a whole. That's also what makes Ukrainian history really international and integrated into the history of Mediterranean, into the history of Europe, into the history of world. Later there was the Crimean war in the 19th century. So it works both ways.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk